By Hadrian Wise.
This Government's attitude to higher education is plain. Charles Clarke is on record as saying, "¦the 'medieval concept' of the university as a community of scholars is only a very limited justification for the state to fund the apparatus of universities. It is the wider social and economic role of universities which justifies more significant state financial support." The attitude this reveals “ that universities are worth paying for primarily as means of facilitating social engineering and increasing economic growth“ is short-sighted, Philistine, repulsive, and wrong.
Short-sighted, in its assumption that usefulness can be predicted. Of course it can't: numerous useful discoveries have been made by accident, the most famous being the discovery of penicillin, and such discoveries are often made in the course of abstruse researches of no obvious use to anybody. We should have to know everything about a subject and what bearing it had on our various ends before we could say conclusively that it was useless“ so even if we do want only what is useful, academic freedom is still the best policy.
Short-sighted too, in that it assumes you can distort academic priorities while retaining the value of degrees. You can't. The more universities play a "social role" the more they admit people because they are poor rather than because they are clever“ the less seriously employers will take degrees, and the less useful degrees will be in helping poor children to improve their prospects.
Philistine, in its failure to acknowledge the intrinsic value of anything except money or ideology. Even things that are useless in achieving prosperity or social cohesion may still be valuable to people Shakespeare's plays, for instance, which are not in the least bit useful, but are well worth studying, because they show more wisdom about the various kinds of human personality and their characteristic predicaments than any other text. Since, to us, the human personality is the most important of all subjects, since it is arguably the most fascinating phenomenon in the universe, since sitting in the office and paying the mortgage are among the least interesting aspects of that subject, you have to wonder whether somebody who thinks those things the most important we do, who cannot see why anybody should learn about anything not a means to them, is in the grip of a misanthropic nihilism.
Repulsive, in its Stalinist desire to subsume all academic activity under its own narrow and transient conception of the common good. The common good is more than whatever the government of the day happens to say it is, and we all contribute to it in a dazzling variety of ways, not only by sitting in the office, but by having children, by buying goods and services, by obeying the law and upholding tradition, by giving to charity, by being polite to strangers and kind to those in distress, by making people laugh and adorning society with our idiosyncrasies, and by adding, however inconsequentially, to the stock of human thought in the sciences and the arts. A university education cannot teach us to do all these things, but it can teach us to think, the prerequisite for being an independent person who has something to contribute in the first place. Whether it is the best training for one narrow way of contributing, sitting in the office is much less certain. It is repulsive arrogance in the government to seek to impose on universities a function for which they are not obviously suited, at the cost of the function that suits them best.
Wrong, for all the reasons above, but above all, for its total misunderstanding of what education is. Education is not a means to an end, but an end in itself, a means only to becoming educated. In becoming educated, we realise our potential as rational beings, who want not just money, sex, power, and other worldly goods, but who also have a yearning for the truth, the truth about ourselves, our fellows, our past, and the world we live in, not for some other end, but for its own intrinsic interest and importance. In learning to recognize the truth and how best to go about finding it, we learn the most important "transferable skill" of all - how to think - and when we exercise this skill, we experience the highest fulfilment we can know; and, incidentally, but only incidentally, this ability to think (which we pick up better from studying 2,500-year-old ancient Greek philosophy and poetry than we do from any number of "media studies" courses) makes us more useful to potential employers than any amount of "training" masquerading as a degree, by enhancing our ability to learn from any training we have. In the long run, societies are remembered for the thoughts of their most interesting members; if we do not carry on education at the highest level, we are in danger of forgetting the most interesting achievements of the past, in danger of stultifying ourselves to the point where we shall be deservedly forgotten in the future.
We are all capable of thought, and we are all capable of appreciating something of the best that has been thought in the world; all of us should have the chance to appreciate it at school. Some of us are capable of going further, of fully understanding, criticising, disseminating, even adding to, the best that has been thought and said, and it is these people, and only these, who are fit for university. Of course it is desirable that all those who are fit for university actually go, but it is more desirable still that universities should have to cater only for those who are fit for them, and any scheme aimed at the first desideratum that risks forfeiting the second, as this government's attempt to blackmail universities into taking students by postcode obviously does, risks turning dons into schoolmasters, and so risks the destruction of universities as places where true education, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, is carried on: places where everybody is free to develop his own academic interests, in a way that teachers and pupils at school are not.
What is to be done? There are many on the libertarian Right who believe that we could remove the threat to universities by privatising them. But that is far from certain. It is doubtful whether Oxford and Cambridge could carry on the tutorial system without state funding, doubtful how many other universities could survive at all. Jumping out of the frying pan of government control is all well and good, but there is always the risk of jumping into the fire of corporate control and having to offer Hamburger Studies. There is a much easier solution. Abandon the insane target for 50% of school-leavers to go to university by 2010, recognize that only about 10% of the population is fit to go to university in the true sense, insist that universities behave like universities and pursue knowledge disinterestedly for its own sake, and as for the rest of what supposed "universities" currently do to benefit our economy declare that if it really is "useful" to business, then business can jolly well pay for it. Then we shall have much better universities for much less money.